Reviews - Monsieur Lazhar
Reviewed By John Stakes
In many ways it was not surprising that Falardeau’s gently humorous film should centre on an Algerian immigrant taking up a new life as an elementary school teacher in Montreal. His lead actor Mohamed Fellag (as Bachir Lazhar) is a native of Algeria but forced to flee his homeland in the 1990’s Algerian war to live in France. Falardeau’s own screenplay was developed from a one act play “Bachir Lazhar” and the director had deployed his own experiences as a student of political science and international relations to bring out the play’s theme of adjustment to grief with both a personal and an international dimension.
Lazhar presents as a substitute teacher after having read about the death by suicide in the classroom of the teacher (Miss Martine) he replaces. At the outset Martine’s death is not explained nor why she chose to self-execute in the classroom where she knew she would be found by her pupils. However by the film’s end we can both begin to understand why she might have taken her life, and see how Lazhar learns that his own approach to the understanding of children mirrors that of Martine.
Gradually we also learn that Lazhar’s life is also blighted by tragedy in that his wife and two children were killed in an arson attack when exception was taken to one of his wife’s books condemning appeasement in a supposed act of political reconciliation which allowed the release of terrorists from gaol. To add to the uncertainty Lazhar’s own refugee status is precarious. From this delicate position the film explores the relationship between Lazhar and his pupils as they try to come to terms with the aftermath of the discovery of Martine’s body and he tries to adjust to life without his wife and family.
Communication between teacher and pupil is not assisted at the outset by differences in teaching methods, curriculum, and language difficulties. And Lazhar has a more individual and traditional approach to his teaching than the school’s Head can stomach. But there is a much bigger shock in store for her.
Falardeau’s insight into the characters’ problems is clearly evident so that his film comes across as a very personal testament to human understanding in an educational context. We feel involved every step of the way. Lazhar comes to be understood, respected and appreciated by his class particularly Simon and Alice who were more damaged by the loss of Martine than the others having witnessed her death. But his “hands on” approach is at odds with the prevailing teaching methods dictated by ultra defensive regulation. The tension is maintained by knowing that Lazhar’s refugee credentials are questioned by the authorities so we worry whether all his input will eventually come to nothing. What is ultimately revealed is that although Lazhar is exposed as having no teaching credentials whatsoever, he has a far greater understanding of his pupils than has the educational system thanks to his growing insight into their feelings and reactions to Martine’s death through his own suffering.
The finely tuned and delicate craft of this film lay in its director’s ability to convey by gentle understatement and humour a panoply of the shortcomings of a safety first approach to education and its impact on the lives of its pupils touched by tragedy. Once again we were treated to some brilliantly naturalistic acting from the pupils so that the emotional scenes did not come across as in any way mawkishly sentimental and we could feel moved without being manipulated.
And what a wonderful piece of observational film making this was which thoroughly deserved its Oscar nomination. The fact that it was pipped to the post by the Iranian entry “A Separation” does not detract from its quality one iota. This Oscar nominee went on to win Best film in the 2011 Canadian Film Festival and scored in seven out of nine categories in Quebec’s own film festival.
There have been many fine classroom dramas (eg “The Class” and “Dead Poets’ Society”). Falardeau’s piece of work ranks amongst the very best. With next Sunday’s screening of “The Monk” to look forward to, this is shaping up to be a mouth-watering season currently featuring the very best of modern French cinema…..and with the image precision of the digital screen! Non-members always welcome.
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